The ten best female jazz vocalists of all time
In jazz discussions, the saxophonists and the trumpeters generally dominate the conversation, and rightly so. Equally as integral to the music, though, is the rest of the band. While we've already listed the top guitarists, pianists and bassists, today we focus on the female vocalists. Although there are a number of exceptional voices worthy of consideration, these are the ten best female jazz vocalists of all time.
Blossom Dearie Blossom Dearie may not have had been able to do vocal gymnastics like some of the others on this list, but she made up for that with her warm, wispy and girlish vocal delivery. Her understated, yet skilled piano playing worked quite well under her singing, particularly on her Verve recordings of the 1950s, including her excellent 1959 self-titled album.
Peggy Lee While Peggy Lee might be forever known for her sultry version of "Fever," which she recorded in 1958, before that she had already had a two-year stint singing in Benny Goodman's big band in the early '40s and had released a number of solo recordings under her own name throughout the '40s and '50s, including the wonderful 1956 album, Black Coffee, which features some great takes on the title track and Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."
Carmen McRae A great singer, composer and pianist, Carmen McRae got an early start singing with Benny Carter, Count Basie and Mercer Ellington in the mid '40s, but it was her solo albums of the 1950s, like Torchy! and Blue Moon that helped push her into the spotlight. She released a number of fine albums throughout the next four decades, including the wonderful 1988 release, Carmen Sings Monk, which features Denver's own Eric Gunnison on piano.
Abbey Lincoln Although she was deeply influenced by Billie Holiday, and she released two Holiday tribute albums, Abbey Lincoln had a stunning voice in her right and was also a fine composer. While Lincoln released some fine records early in career, like 1961's Straight Ahead, some of her Verve output throughout the '90s and 2000s were quite compelling, including 1994's A Turtle's Dream and her gorgeous final album, Abbey Sings Abbey, released in 2007, three years before her death the age of eighty.
Betty Carter Betty Carter was one of jazz's more daring and dexterous scat singers, which is evident on many of her albums, especially the 1980 live album, The Audience With Betty Carter, and she also had exquisite way of delivering a line. While she performed with Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie in the late '40s, her career got something of a jump start after releasing 1961's Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which featured the cut "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which is, hands down, one of the best holiday songs ever.
Dinah Washington Although Dinah Washington delved into blues, R&B and pop, she was also a first-rate jazz singer. After singing gospel early in her life, she began performing in Chicago clubs as a teenager in the early '40s, and later joined Lionel Hampton's band. Her 1954 Polygram release, Dinah Jams, which was arranged by Quincy Jones and features jazz heavies like Clifford Brown and Max Roach, was one of her early great jazz discs, and the title track from the more mainstream What a Diff'rence a Day Makes! earned Washington a Grammy in 1960.
Nina Simone With a background in gospel and pop and a fondness for classical music, especially J.S. Bach, Nina Simone injected some of those influences into her jazz singing and piano playing. While Simone's instantly recognizable deep, resonant voice was part of her appeal, her competent piano skills were equally compelling on her early recordings like 1957's Little Girl Blue, which featured an excellent rendition of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," and Live at the Village Gate, released five years later, that included the great "Just in Time."
Billie Holiday Billie Holiday's distinctive and lilting phrasing is still highly influential on vocalists today, but she also brought a deeply personal resonance to whatever she sang. Throughout the '30s, she worked with Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw and Count Basie, and near the end of that decade, she recorded the profound "Strange Fruit," which was based on a poem about a lynching. Lady Sings the Blues, released in 1956, was a watershed album for Holiday, and the powerful Lady in Satin, both sad and beautiful, was released weeks after her death in 1959 at the age of 44.
Sarah Vaughan In the fall of 1942, an eighteen-year-old Sarah Vaughan entered the Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest and ended up winning $10 and a weeklong engagement at the legendary venue. The following spring, Vaughan opened for Ella Fitzgerald at the Apollo, and then spent the next two years touring with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. With amazing control of her voice and intonation, as well as a remarkable range, Vaughan released some stellar albums in the '50s, including her great self-titled disc with Clifford Brown and the 1957 live Verve album, At Mr. Kelly's.
Ella Fitzgerald Ella Fitzgerald was clearly one of the most technically proficient vocalists of all time. She had remarkably pure phrasing and delivery, plus an innate sense of swing and an exceptional ability to scat sing. While she released dozens of albums over six-decade career, which began in the '30s, her George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen songbook albums are outstanding, as are her albums with Louis Armstrong, including 1956's Ella & Louis and their magnificent rendering of Porgy & Bess. Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, recorded when Fitzgerald was 43, is hailed as one of her definitive live albums.
BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS - The ten best jazz bassists of all time - The ten best jazz guitarists of all time - The ten best saxophonists of all time - The ten best trumpeters of all time - The ten best pianists of all time
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.